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What is an Ice Detector?

By Maggie J. Hall
Updated May 23, 2024
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An ice detector uses light beams or vibrations to alert individuals of various stages of ice development. Ice formation, in many situations, not only poses a potential risk of mechanical failure, but also represents possible danger to people. Early detection allows the appropriate personnel to take action, which prevents malfunction and ensures public safety. Frequently used in aviation and on wind farms, these spectrometers indicate when ice formation has become a hazard.

Using some type of visible instrument gauge, a sensory mechanism and a power supply, an ice detector indicates outdoor conditions during inclement weather. Devices employing the use of an optical transducer probe typically emit an infrared or other type of light beam into the transducer. At various stages of ice development, the light beam is refracted at different angles through the ice. A signal travels to a monitoring apparatus, which interprets this data and gives an alert as to the severity of the condition.

Another type of ice detector uses a probe that vibrates at wind speed under normal weather conditions. As ice gradually accumulates, the vibrations change, diminishing as the probe freezes. A monitoring device interprets these vibrations as sound frequencies, which indicate various stages of ice formation. This information then travels through an instrumentation gauge or panel. Some gauges have a simple indicator light accompanied by other indicators of outdoor weather conditions, including temperature or wind speed. Various groups of light emitting diodes may represent warning signals, with different colors denoting various thicknesses of ice.

Ice detectors that are incorporated into aircraft instruments usually alert pilots to the stages of clear and rime ice formation. Changes in refractory patterns on an optical sensor indicates the depth of clear ice or the formation of rime ice, which is typically white and opaque. Different devices have varying degrees of sensitivity but usually indicate no ice, ice alert, more ice and saturated ice levels. Installed on more than one part of the plane, an ice detector alerts pilots of ice formation in locations that include the carburetor, engine, wings or tail. With adequate warning, a pilot can employ deicing measures or use various flight maneuvers to ensure the safety of the plane and the passengers.

Ice formation can also damage wind turbines. It can damage the motorized parts of the turbine and create hazardous projectiles if it forms on the large rotating blades. Wind farms use ice detectors similar to those incorporated in aircraft along with deicing methods to prevent these situations.

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